Kept away from criticism, presumably so co-creator Ryan Murphy can protect the viewing experience of audiences without access to Wikipedia, recent TV, or semi-recent history, Netflix Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is a maddening hodgepodge. (That’s the last time I’ll use this complete silly title, one of the many things the Netflix brass should have had the means to prevent.)
You can appreciate the performers in Dahmer — Richard Jenkins and Niecy Nash in particular; Evan Peters despite an excess of familiarity in his turn – and respect that Murphy and co-creator Ian Brennan have tangible and meaningful things to say here, while feeling that the 10-episode series is structured haphazardly, never finds a happy medium between exploration and expectation, and probably never would have existed if the adulation for The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story had been more universal.
Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story
Chilling but repetitive.
Broadcasting date : Wednesday, September 21 (Netflix)
Cast: Evan Peters, Richard Jenkins, Molly Ringwald, Michael Learned, Penelope Ann Miller, Niecy Nash
Creators: Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan
It’s not that Versace was not admired, but most critics, myself included, compared it negatively to the previous season, The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. Over the years of looking back, I’ve come to really appreciate the points that Murphy and writer Tom Rob Smith were making in Versace, and the relative elegance of character study that the series’ reverse-narrative allowed. I’m sure if we had all been admiring the season, Murphy and company wouldn’t have felt the need to say, “Listen, you didn’t get my final 10-hour sketchy interrogation on the show’s intersection.” murder and race, focused on retrieving the names and identities of victims from notoriety of the perpetrator – so I’ll try again with more grip.
As was the case in Assassination, Dahmer begins at the end, in 1991, when prolific serial killer, necrophiliac and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer (Peters) picks up Tracy Edwards (Shaun J. Brown) from a gay bar in the Milwaukee area and brings him back to his seedy apartment, where absolutely everything is a warning sign: there’s a drill drenched in blood, a tank full of dead fish, a festering stench, a mysterious blue transport drum, and a VCR playing The Exorcist III. Tracy – historical spoiler alert – escapes and catches the police and it is soon discovered that Dahmer had, over the course of three decades, murdered and done horrific things with the bodies of 17 young men, mostly young men of color.
From there, we trace Jeffrey’s evolution from an antisocial young boy (a gorgeous Josh Braaten) to a dissection-loving teenager and then a serial killer, but never in chronological order because everyone knows that chronological order is for squares and Wikipedia. We witness her relationship with her caring but distracted father (Jenkins’ Lionel), her unstable and mistreated mother (Penelope Ann Miller), her barely sketched stepmother (Molly Ringwald’s Shari), her grandmother who goes to the church (Michael Learned’s Catherine), various victims, and the neighbor (Nash’s Glenda) who kept calling the police about the smell and continued to be ignored.
For five episodes, directed by Carl Franklin, Clement Virgo and Jennifer Lynch, Dahmer does the same loops over and over again through Jeffrey’s behavior, which I would call “increasingly nightmarish”, except once you tell the story in a semi-arbitrary order, you lose all progression of the character implied by “more and more”. So it’s just a nightmarish but monotonous miasma in which Jeffrey drinks cheap beer, fixates on someone, masturbates inappropriately and then does something horrible, although at least the show keeps us in suspense as to what horrible thing he is going to do. This development of tension through “Is he going to eat this victim? or “Is he going to have sex with this victim?” turned audiences into ghouls, a bewildered audience accusation that I might find more persuasive if it weren’t for the creative team behind countless seasons of american horror story and the network behind long-form documentaries about every serial killer imaginable.
Smarter sightings begin to appear in the second half of the season, starting with the episode “Silenced.” Written by David McMillan and Janet Mock and directed with more empathy than voyeurism by Paris Barclay, “Silenced” tells the story of Tony Hughes (excellent newcomer Rodney Burnford), presented here as perhaps the only victim with whom Jeffrey had traces of a real relationship. It’s easily the show’s best episode, an uncomfortably mellow and sad hour of television that probably should have been the template for the whole show. Tony was deaf, and by placing a black, deaf, gay character at the center of the narrative, the show gives voice to someone whose voice has too often been excluded from portrayals of serial killers.
Obviously Murphy and Brennan want this to be a key takeaway from Dahmerbut unlike something like When they see uswhich had a similar message of turning “The Central Park Five” into individuals with names and personalities, Dahmer maybe does it with two or three of the non-Jeffrey characters. The second half of the series is meant to be that, but the series can’t get out of its own way. There are unnecessary, long, manipulative asides about Ed Gein and John Wayne Gacy, for example, getting more screen time than at least 10 kills. It’s just pandering to the serial killer’s obsessions and undermining several themes of the show. I would add that focusing on things like that and reducing most victims and their families to their pain is closer to exploiting that pain than honoring memories.
Or take “Cassandra,” the episode built around Nash’s Glenda (the actress simultaneously eschews the comedic cadences that made her a star and delivers two or three lines of incredulous dialogue that will make some viewers applaud). It’s a good episode because Nash is so good, but he can only get into Glenda’s head with the help of a subplot involving Jesse Jackson (Nigel Gibbs), there to lay out the themes that the writers are not sure they have already established.
This is the problem. I know why, intellectually, Dahmer does a lot of things he does. I just wish he was confident in his own ability to do them.
The first half of the season is as repetitive as it is in part because it wants to clarify how many different points Dahmer could have been caught at or had his appetites redirected. “All these red flags”, deplores Lionel Dahmer. True story! Could the true story have been conveyed in two episodes instead of five? Why yes, especially in a series that wants to tell stories that we don’t know, since these five episodes are the story that we do namely, anchored by Peters giving a performance full of uncomfortable, dead-eyed dread but, apart from in “Silenced”, never surprising. After Peters won a well-deserved Emmy for breaking away from Murphy’s cinematic universe eccentricities and affectations in Easttown Mareit’s back to the performance you expect in Dahmerbut with an inconsistent Midwestern accent.
The second half of the season aims to flesh out the entirely uncontroversial assessment that Dahmer got away with his crimes because he was a white man primarily preying on economically disadvantaged men of color. Milwaukee police, perhaps the real bad guys in the play, missed many opportunities to stop things because they weren’t interested in the race and economic status of the missing people, wanted no part of the sexuality of anyone involved and could not be bothered to show support in the impacted neighborhoods.
It’s hard to dispute as fact in the matter – moreover, it’s the EXACT subtext of much of Versace – and I would say that Dahmer makes the point quite clearly. Then in the later episodes, with Jesse Jackson and others, the show continues to have people coming out and saying it. Say it once, shame on anyone in the audience who hasn’t already figured it out. Do it twice, shame on you for not trusting this audience. Do it three times, shame on Netflix devs for not saying, “Yeah, it’s already good.” Pass.” But again, Ryan Murphy likes to show and tell (again and again), and in a world where too many storytellers forget to do the first entirely, I guess we should be grateful?
Going through a different editing process, there’s a clever interrogation of Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes, the real people affected, and the consequences here. It is often lost or obscured. Hopefully the dramatic choices and decision to let the show promote itself doesn’t cause Niecy Nash, Richard Jenkins, Rodney Burnford, and worthwhile show points to be lost.